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Clinton's blessing is mixed for Obama

The current president is learning that there is both an upside and a downside to having a former president -- particularly one with whom he has tangled in the past -- as the most prominent surrogate for his re-election bid.

On the one hand, Bill Clinton brings to bear an unrivaled standing and stature in making the case that President Obama deserves a second term; on the other, he creates a big mess to clean up when he goes off-message.

Such has been the awkward case several times in the last week. The latest instance came Tuesday, less than a day after he made appearances at three fundraisers for Obama in New York, when Clinton argued for temporarily extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts -- even those for the wealthy -- that are due to expire at the end of the year.

Obama opposes renewing the cuts for those earning more than $250,000 a year.

In the ensuing furor over Clinton's comments in an interview on CNBC, the former president's spokesman, Matt McKenna, issued a statement trying to reconcile the former and current presidents' positions. He insisted that Clinton, while opposing tax cuts for the wealthy, was merely acknowledging the political reality that no long-term deal is likely to be reached until after the election.

But Republicans gleefully jabbed Obama with Clinton's comments, saying they bolstered the GOP case for extending the cuts. "Even Bill Clinton came out for it, before he was against it," said House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.

Whatever Clinton's drawbacks may be, they are greatly outweighed by his assets, Obama campaign officials insist. They argue that he is a unique political asset who can speak to both the Democratic base and the swing voters whom Obama is trying to recapture.

The former president also caused a stir last week, when he spoke of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney as "a man who's been governor [of Massachusetts] and had a sterling business career." That undercut the criticism that Obama's campaign had been making of Romney's record in private equity. But Clinton also argued that Romney's resume is not the issue and warned that his policies would be disastrous.

That Clinton presided over an economic boom and a balanced budget gives him credibility to make the case against Romney and the GOP, even when he doesn't follow the Obama campaign's talking points, Democrats say.

"Clinton understands what a surrogate does," said one close friend. "His motivation is, he thinks he is being helpful to Obama, but he is not going to take instruction."